Is France’s contemporary art market in crisis?

[07 Jun 2005]


On 9 May 2005, François Pinault abandoned his plans to turn Renault’s old factory site in Boulogne-Billancourt into a contemporary art foundation. Worn down by bureaucratic obstructions, he opted instead to take his collection to Venice’s Grassi Palace. It was one of precious few cultural projects in France not to rely on public subsidy and would have created a rival for London’s Saatchi gallery and a great opportunity to promote French contemporary art.

France’s backwardness in this field is perfectly illustrated by the feeble showings of contemporary French artists on the auction floor. Compared to the international competition, French artists do not do very well. Even on their home ground, they underperform the Anglo-Saxons and Italians. Witness the 2004 auction price rankings for contemporary art in France: only two French artists make it into the top 20, and the first only comes in at number ten. This is Bernar Venet, with “Arc 235.5°, 4 lignes”, sold for EUR 76,000 on 18 July. The second, ranking fifteenth, is Robert Combas whose “Jumelage Sète-Marseille”, a canvas over six metres wide, found a buyer for EUR 60,000 last October. The highest price for a contemporary work was the EUR 160,000 bid for Catalan Miquel Barcelo’s “In Extremis” at Tajan on 30 November.

Nor does the picture get any less worrying if we look at the international auction market. Jeff Koons had the highest hammer price for any contemporary artist, at USD 4.9 million, but the top price for a work by a French artist, “Untitled” from Annette Messager’s “Mes Voeux” series, trailed in 324th place, going for USD 120,000 at Sotheby’s New York.

In contrast, groups such as the Young British Artists patronised by Charles Saatchi are seeing a vertiginous and continuing rise in prices. You only need to look at Damien Hirst’s 2004 results, including GBP 1.1 million for “The Fragile Truth”, to see how effective private sector support for the market can be.